Florence is an old, illustrious city. The center of empires– or the purse-strings at least.

Photo by KBM

It felt hard to get a real view of the city at first. We parked across the Arno, near the Roman wall, crossing town at a brisk pace in order to make our early   reservation for the Galleria dell’Accademia. It was gritty, clouded, and largely deserted.  There were flashes of the real city through alley corridors: piazzas dominated by large churches, courtyards glimpsed through an iron gate, but the main impression were those dark and winding alleys.


L’Accademia’s main draw is certainly Michelangelo’s David, which is more impressive in real life than the literature. No matter how many times you’ve read about the way that Michelangelo disproportionately sized elements, you can’t really understand it until you’ve seen the veins standing out in David’s enormous wrists, or his dilated pupils, clearly visible from a great height below.

Photo from wikipedia.org

The second most appealing exhibit was the art of trecento Florence, hidden in an upstairs set of rooms. I particularly like late medieval work, which maintains some of the premodern preciousness while hinting an experimentation with new modes. On the whole, L’Accademia was an aperitivo for Florence’s far grander collection at Gli Uffizi, our final destination for the day.

We hit two other major sites before lunch – L’ospedale degli Innocenti and San Lorenzo. The former is one of the first neoclassical building facades, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi for an orphanage. Even today, many Italians have the last name “Innocenti,” revealing a foundling progenitor.

San Lorenzo is another of Brunelleschi’s capolavori, representing a similar style with its pure geometry and grey local stone. While the staid appearance may have less impact than a medieval church, Brunelleschi was employing a radical new conception of aesthetic beauty 200 years before it became standard across Europe. He was a true visionary. Its still possible to see where he couldn’t quite maintain purist control, like the reliefs installed in the Old Sacristy or the effusive dome fresco, rising like a sun out of the cloudy pietra serena.

Photo by KBM

We were also glimpsing the first signs of the fabled Medici. Once you become aware, you can’t help but spot the heraldic palle (a reference to the “medicine” from which the family derives its name) everywhere, laying claim to Florence’s hidden beauties. Just as the dark alleys hint at the murderous conflicts of Florence’s leading families, the private chapels reflect their carefully constructed public faces. That tension appears to be the perfect recipe for truly great art.

Santa Maria Novella, the Dominican church, is just such an example. It is Italian before all else with its striped exterior frescoed interior. The main chapel is one of my favorites I’ve ever seen. It’s impossible not to be a little awed as seemingly living and breathing Florentines turn from the depicted public and domestic scenes to stare directly at the viewer. It’s a reminder that while worship was a civic enterprise, beauty in Florence has always been highly proprietary.

Image from burnwithinus.wordpress.com

Finally it was time to see the treasures themselves at Gli Uffizi. I’ve never been to the Louvre, but I can only assume it is a similar experience. One room after another was filled with elements of the art history canon. I don’t think I’ve ever “stumbled across”so many instantly recognizable pieces. My favorite artists remain Botticelli, Simone Martini, and Filippo Lippi. I bought a poster of what I think to be one of the most beautiful depictions of the Madonna, which is in fact believed to be a portrait of the artist’s mistress:

Image from italiaeoisagunt.blogspot.com

We stepped outside for a minute on the balcony, the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio close at hand, and the dome of the duomo not too far in the distance, reminders that while we’d made a good start, there was still much to see. We crossed the Ponte Vecchio on our way home, and old-fashioned bridge lined with shops and illuminated by holiday lights.

Photo by KBM

After that long day, it seemed appropriate to do a slightly less demanding trip the next day. Lucca is one of those cities frequently called a “hidden gem” by travel books, posing a challenge to Florence or Pisa. The nicest thing I can say it that it was one of the first places I’d been to in Tuscany that seemed truly livable. Still bound by ancient walls and spotted with Romanesque churches, the most prominent characteristic was still the number of families. We saw that was the case in the trattoria we stopped at. While it was highly recommended, the service was impossibly spastic. We were seated, served, and moved along with no shortage of errors, but possibly record time.

Photo by KBM

After that we visited a series of ancient churches. The church facades were from an artistic period I’d never seen before in real life, my favorite being San Giovanni, which we could actually go under into an archaeological underworld featuring everything from Roman bath mosaics to Lombardian graffitti. An equally suprising relic is il Volto Santo, a dark wood statue believed to have been carved by Nicodermus based upon the actual model of Jesus on the cross. In fact, it’s likely a replica based on an eighth century original, but it has been the object of pilgrimage for centuries. Lucca’s other features include a piazza built atop a Roman amphitheater, and a fully walkable city wall.

On the whole, I’m far more interested in what a Renaissance metropolis like Florence has to offer, but for the right people, Lucca is certainly worth the trip.

I’ve mentioned before my particular attachment to Italy. When I was asked where I would most like to take a family vacation to, it was an obvious answer. I love the idea of Italy, but sometimes I worry that my love is exactly that- an idea, disconnected from a rougher reality.

This trip had a tough beginning in more than a few ways, including family drama and serious car trouble. I caught myself laughing at odd times, some part travel nerves, and some part déjà vu. We did family road-trips all the time before moving back to the U.S. nearly a decade ago. I’ve encountered strange moments, like glimpsing myself in a gas station mirror, and seeing that I even have the same hairstyle as back then.

Getting on the road was an accomplishment. We rented a van that seats 7-9 people and feels like being in a fairly comfortable tank. The drive south from Vienna had some beautiful moments, like seeing a pink sunset  on the snow of Dolomites, or the inky reflection of a mountain lake at night. Yet there were plenty of the stressful times I’ve come to associate with any travel day, like when we spent a fraught thirty minutes deciding between our allegiance to the printed map or to Simon, the GPS.  We ended up in completely impenetrable fog under a couple of overpasses, Simon urging us ever-forward into what I thought could only be  river or an oncoming train. After that excursion, we were glad to spend the night outside of Venice at a quirky hotel with an intensely courteous staff.

We set out the next day, driving through the Emilia-Romagna region to finally reach Tuscany. Our residence is outside of Florence, next door to a castle dating to the tenth century. We’re actually staying in a fourteenth-century farmhouse, which offers some important benefits, like a functioning kitchen and an array of bath products featuring olive oil.

In the first welcome spontaneous adventure of the trip, we were greeted half-way through a walk around the hilltop and brought into a winery for an impromptu tasting. We left with a couple of bottles of wine and, in my case, a painful reminder regarding my spoken Italian.

We rested a couple of hours before heading down (and down, and down) to the nearest town of San Casciano, for a New Year’s cenone.

The traditional Italian meal is composed of three courses and a desert (accompanied, of course, by a variety of drinks). From my spinach ravioli to my nearly-raw steak, it was fabulously delicious. By the time we actually returned and collapsed in bed, fire-crackers and noisemakers echoing across the valley outside our windows, I thought I would never eat again.

Fortunately, I was very wrong. We rolled out of bed, bleary-eyed, for a continental breakfast courtesy of the hotel. While it was weightier than the traditional Italian colazione, it featured breads and an omelet with a distinctly Italian flavor along with some much-needed cappuccinos.

January 1st is capodanno, the Italian New Year. I was pessimistic about our ability to see museums and even visit shops and restaurants, but once again, I underestimated. We chose San Gimignano as a town that could be enjoyed mostly by strolling in the medieval alleys. It is one of the most authentically medieval hill-towns, spared the ravages of Renaissance urban renewal. The most distinctive feature is the skyline of towers, carefully constructed by elite families to watch outsiders and each other. They are the architectural equivalent of “king of the mountain.”

We walked around for a bit, taking in the view and the occasional shop window. Eventually we made our ways to the main piazze, one of which centered around a very old fountain, and the other the duomo, which was unfortunately closed. We were, however, able to undertake one of the top-recommended Tuscan activities and climb the torre grossa, poking through the museo civico along the way. It wasn’t the most terrifying scaffolding I’ve been on, and whatever butterflies I did pick up were made well-worth it by the view.

We visited a bar, where I ate some excellent bruschetta con melanzane (eggplant). We saw the archaeological museum and a gallery of contemporary art, which were nice, if not especially striking. A quick trip into Sant’Agostino fulfilled the church fresco quota for the day.

As we walked back, the main shopping street was pieno pieno with other tourists, all seemingly Italian. I don’t know what it is about Italian culture, but the net export of most Italian cities appears to be tourists. Other European cities are equally filled with them at any given time. They appear fairly professional, taking photos with one hand as they haul shopping bags in the other, calling out when necessary to stray nonni and bambini.

Italians have always appreciated beauty in both its refined and unrefined forms. Many medieval and Renaissance Italian authors wrote about the benefit of perceiving beauty for the soul. San Francesco praised the calming and nurturing effect of the natural world, while authors like Petrarch and Dante thought that human beauty could carry the promise of salvation. It might all sound a little cliché, but Tuscany itself can seem like a textbook fabrication. The truth is that beauty is very real here, and that even forty-eight hours is enough to feel like a weight has been lifted from your shoulders. I can’t think of a better way to end one year, and begin the next.

Buon anno a tutti!

Nearly four months have passed since I was last in Europe. I spent another semester learning Italian and German (the former more than the latter) and began an intensive history program. With the exception of the occasional course like Art Since 1945, I’m studying European culture, history and language until I finish undergrad, and likely even after that. While I have the occasional commitment qualm, on the whole, I’m really enjoying it! I feel like I’m making use of the fantastic opportunity I have to live and travel in Europe. I’ve applied for several grants to conduct pre-thesis research in Vienna this summer, so with any luck, my next visit will also involve working with some Hapsburg-era collections.

This December however is devoted to rest, relaxation, and celebrating the holidays with family. The though of a Vienna home in the winter kept me going through grueling exam weeks and the twelve-hour journey. Arriving was luckily much simpler, and after a disorienting nap, I even managed to attend a reception that same evening.

The best thing about Vienna during the holidays are the Christmas markets. I remember the picturesque collections of shop stands in Prague with a lot of fondness, and while Vienna’s version is different, it still makes for a unique experience. You begin by stepping off the warm tram into the frigid cold of an Austrian December. The first thing you’ll see will likely be the hanging lights, or the grandiose imperial building looming above.

Rathaus, picture by KBM

Karlsplatz, Picture by KBM

As you navigate your way through the press of people in dark or fur coats, you’ll smell of sizzling Würstchen smothered in mustard or cheese, or the spicy-sweet aroma of Glühwein and varieties of Punsch. If you pry your hands out of their gloves to scarf down the food and wine while they’re still hot, you’ll find you don’t mind the cold quite so much, and can amble around looking at the wares.

Picture by KBM

Picture by KBM

While I think the Vienna markets could be improved with more German-styled hot sugared almonds or Czech street musicians and affordable goods, I really enjoyed first visiting the Karlsplatz, Museums Quartier, and finally Amhof and Freiung markets over the course of a couple days. Even though (or perhaps because?) our only purchases were food and drink.I wish it would snow, but the lit streets still manage to create a nice holiday spirit.

The Betrayal of Images, René Magritte, 1928-1929

I visited the Albertina for the first time to see a pretty good Magritte exhibit. Since taking the before-mentioned Art History course, I now can say I know a lot more about contemporary art. It’s newly exciting to spot a piece by Giacometti or Wohls. The Albertina was pleasant, but while they’ve got some big names, it’s always smaller, lesser-known pieces. I did have an only-in-Vienna experience when I wandered from a Picasso exhibit into some Hapsburg-era apartments, Dürer drawings on the walls like some people hang family photos.

I preferred an exhibit called Winter Märchen at the Kunsthistorische Museum, which we visited Christmas day. The exhibit followed the appearance and changing meaning of the season through centuries of art history. I thought the theme really exhibited the amazing breadth and quality of Museum holdings,  “from Bruegel to Beuys.” It was also neat to wander from some rather staid Flemish paintings into an Imperial-scaled room of Napoleonic Romantics and actual horse-drawn sleighs.

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, Peter Bruegel, 1559

Napoleon Crossing the Alps, Jacques-Louis David, 1801

Merry Christmas to all from Vienna! Next stop, Florence, Italy for New Year’s!

After a two-week hiatus, I feel like I may have had enough Vienna experience to constitute a blog post. It’s taken a while because I had some very important nothing to do. It is, after all, summer, although you’d hardly know it from the weather here, which tends towards cold and rainy.

The temporary apartment is located on a residential street in the Northern district of Vienna, right next to where my family will be moving into more permanent accommodations. Quirks include an enormous living room (perfect for Ad and Js), three bathrooms in one hallway, and a dryer with the squeak of hell. I’m slightly concerned about the cat, who is usually a couple cards short of a deck, but actually seems to have acquired new neurosis in the course of this move. He’s currently wearing an Elizabethan cone to keep him from chewing his tail/falling out another window.

A good portion of these weeks has been spent in said apartment, but we got out every other day or so, and I checked some fairly major sights off my list.

1. Wienerwald

This was one of the most accessible outings from the apartment, and we felt up to tackling it the third day here. We took one of the many buses leaving from nearby up the hill into the Vienna woods (“Wienerwald”). It was lovely weather, cooler than Italy, but sunny and clear. We had a great view up by a church built in thanks to Vienna’s survival of the 17th century Turkish siege. While we took a couple wrong turns, we serendipitously ended up on a lovely path all the way down the hill. We passed gorges, vineyards, and one friendly donkey.

2. Schonbrunn Palace

This Hapsburg mansion is probably the number one tourist site in Vienna, and while Ad and Js weren’t overly concerned, I felt like I would fail as a host if I didn’t lead an expedition. We took a bus all the way across town to were the palace still continues to sit more or less on its own as Vienna’s Greenwich.

I doubt there is a better example in the world of the Rococo aesthetic. Ad and I did a tour of 40 rooms, all gilded and paneled, but not remotely alike. I also thought it was one of the best audio tours I had, focusing more on the eccentric Hapsburg inhabitants than the plainly visible rooms. Yet it was still stuffy, and I was ready to walk in the extensive gardens afterwards. Following some apfelstrudel (apple pastry) at a nearby cafe, that is.

We saw the Gloriette from a distance, and I’m glad we decided to hike the hill for a closer look, although there was no way we were paying to ride the elevator up. We had a lovely enough view from the foot of some of the most purely imperial sculptures I’ve ever seen. They’re only appropriate, I suppose, to a building dedicated to the cause of “just war.”

3. Innerstadt and Stephansdome

While we had been through the inner city on our way to an English-version theater for Harry Potter, we did a more deliberate walking tour based on Frommer’s guide.   We saw the biggest sites on Imperial Vienna, including the Opera House, the Albertina, and the Hofburg Palace, while also pausing at the Augustinekeller, a cellar wine tavern with plenty of atmosphere but not a lot of service.

We ended at a Italian restaurant off of the main tourist area, but decided to see more of the famous Stephansdome. Once one of the tallest buildings in the world, this 12th century church formed the impetus for Vienna’s transformation from a town to a center of European civilization. That being said, I gained a much greater appreciation for that at a related exhibit at the city museum later that week. The interior the Stephansdome itself is crowded and expensive, with each section costing a separate entrance fee. It’s simply not as beautiful or unique as some of the other churches I’ve seen on this trip, but that may be because it helped set the European standard.

4. Stadtmuseum and Karlskirche

If a city could have a collective attic, it would more or less look like the city museum. The Vienna example didn’t vary from that with its various articles from a thousand years of occupation. Unsurprisingly, its most prolific collection were the 18th and 19th century rooms. However I particularly liked the exhibits about the Turkish siege, featuring war maps, weapons, and military art from both sides.

We were near to the Karlskirche when we left, so we popped in for another of Vienna’s famous churches. This one I thought was far more uniquely Austrian, with its opulent gold, emotive sculpture, and sheer height. Scaffolding had been set up to lend access to the highest cupola with the promise of a “panorama view.” The view itself was fairly obstructed by the poles and old glass, but the experience of being on rickety scaffolding amidst the heavenly scenes painted by baroque artists is far more memorable.

These sights are unusual in their opulence. Vienna, the city itself, is far more defined by things like mixed-zone development, with apartments perched on top of cafes, grocery stores, and pharmacies toting holistic medicines. Public transportation is a constant sight, with characteristic red trams and perfectly punctual buses. While no doubt proud of their imperial heritage, this seems like a city that is happy to be small and well-run. If anything survived those centuries of grandeur, it is a hearty appreciation for the arts.

So I realized as we arrived in Vienna we have been traveling 40 days and 40 nights.  Roughly 25 days with the program, followed by another 15 in Spain, France, Italy, and Austria. Of course, in a way our travel lasts even longer than that since we will be staying in Vienna– myself indefinitely and Ad and Js until the end of the month.

My first introduction to Austria is the train system, and I can honestly say that it is a perfect first impression. We began the day by getting a compartment to ourselves (“like Harry Potter!”) in which we could alternate watching movies and gazing at the mountains outside our window. The German-speakers we encountered were polite and friendly, if rule-abiding.

Ample room for luggage! Terrific signage! Flawless acceptance of Eurail passes! I could go on. It continues to amuse me that not only are there screens displaying stations, maps, and estimated times, but the “plan” and “aktuell” times have not varied by so much as a minute. So while 8 hours is a long time to spend on a train, by comparison to previous gauntlets, yesterday was a breeze.

I’ve decided that like many things, we can probably blame a good deal of our train trouble on France. Every single train we had Eurail trouble with has been because of French restrictions, badly designed French trains, and generally unhelpful French officials.

We took a cab to the apartment inhabited by 2/3 of my family (1/3 still in the US recovering from moving-related injuries). While it is temporary accommodation, it’s wonderful to be in a kind of home again. And while we’re excited to see Vienna’s sites, I think we’re happy to do it at a slightly slower pace, with perhaps a couple days of cooking and laundry. Our days of hostels and hotels are over, and our independent adventuring is converted into a family visit. All that’s left now is some breathing space and gradually accustoming myself to this new European home.

I apologize to Francophiles everywhere, but I was more than a little gleeful to leave France for Italy. I really love Italy. I love Italian language, history, art, and of course, Italian cuisine. While we sadly had neither the stamina nor resources to maintain a longer stay in Italy as we had planned, the one full day we devoted to Verona was intensely valuable in confirming, that yes, I feel things for Italy that as of now, I feel for no other country.

Let’s start from the beginning. The language. I took Italian on a whim upon entering college. It was a cry of individuality in the herding process of freshman sign-ups. Then I found that it appealed to me like playing a musical instrument enchants others. I found Italian culture to be both familiar and exotic, each region more culturally colorful than the next. Yet the past two years (in which I’ve taken 1-2 Italian related courses a semester and declared an Italian major), my only memories of Italy itself dated back to a summer trip to Tuscany when I was just twelve or so.

Since we had bought tickets (sigh) we didn’t have a repeat of Eurail troubles for the most part. We called a cab for a ridiculously early time, and it seemed they arrived even earlier, starting the clock running before we’d gotten the call from the desk. Goodbye France!

The train from Lyon to Chambery was actually the first one we’d been able to hop-on, hop-off. From Chambery to Milan was harder. There was no room for luggage. It was probably about forty-five minutes before we had found and navigated to our seats, stuffing our luggage between our knees and trapping an Italian mama and her college-age daughter into their own seats in the process. They seemed good-natured about it, or at least more so than the screaming kid next to us. The train was, of course, late, so we missed our more expensive, faster train (which we hadn’t necessarily meant to buy). We didn’t establish that until we’d climbed aboard the first train we saw labeled “Verona,”and found some English-speaking kids to clarify. But I’ve learned to measure train day success by whether or not you reach your destination within an alloted 12 hour period.

What better way to celebrate that nominal success than dinner at a local osteria? We walked about ten minuted from our hotel, which was clearly located in the residential part of Verona. It was a neighborhood place in which we had to try a variety of languages before achieving some comprehension. My own Italian had yet to kick in, and I’ve never been good at food vocabulary in any language. Yet we ordered wine to hold us until the kitchen opened and following that, the best appetizer I’ve had to date– prosciutto con melone.

Ad took an alternate route, and due to some lucky saves, arrived in Verona at about 3 in the morning, although he had been scheduled for an 8 hour layover in Milan. I tried to contain my eagerness to get started early the next morning, but as Js said, they have no need for an alarm as long as I’m around. I was determined to make the most of my one day in Italy.

Used to walking 8-12 km in a day, we foreswore the bus in favor of walking the 2 km into the city center. Js and Ad were angels, patiently waiting outside as I darted from church to museum like a kid in a candy store.

The first stop was San Zeno, a beautiful church with a famous altarpiece and grand medieval doors.

Next came a walk along the water and Castelvecchio. Like most Italian pseudo-fortresses, this palazzo belonged to an influential family, and now houses an art museum specializing in local Rennaissance artists.

We stopped for lunch before proceeding on to the Piazza Bra’, and one of Verona’s greatest selling points: The Roman Arena. While gladiators once battled in this 30k capacity forum, it’s now the site of a summer opera season, as demonstrated by the set for the Barber of Seville.

Really I thought the Arena didn’t compare to the simple charms of some of Verona’s churches, or just people-watching in the piazza, gelato in hand.

We ventured further North and I was easily persuaded to see Santa Anastasia.

We finished the night off with dinner in the Piazza Bra’, where all of us gave up on a purist approach to Italian culture and ordered pizza. It’s not every day you can sip wine in an Italian piazza, a Roman ruin highlighted by the setting sun! We walked back in the dusky cool, and I reflected happily on Verona as the perfect 1-day city.

You know it’s been a good trip when things begin to pale in comparison to past sights. At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself the last three days in Lyon, and I think it is true. Our stay in Lyon has been pleasant without being over-taxing. We’re experiencing the city on a different level– one that involves laundry and groceries.

I wish I could say that it has been completely without stress, but thanks to our experiences with the Eurail pass, that has not been entirely true. Sunday morning Jose and I set out for the train station in Part-Dieu. It was a long walk, but we’d done a similar journey to Sants train station while in Barcelona, and I’d appreciated seeing a part of the city I might not otherwise. Luckily we were greeted by a shorter line upon arrival, but a worse result. Nothing was open, we were told. Not to Eurail pass holders.

Keep in mind that we were seeking reservations a full three days before our trains, and that we were fairly adaptable when it came to which and when, as long as we could get to Italy within the day. We had even shifted our destination (Bologna changed to Verona) for the sake of easier train travel. But no, nothing was open to us… unless we were willing to pay more. For the sake of sanity we did so, but I’ll never forget standing there trying to absorb another heavy blow to our wallets as the somewhat lifeless receptionist scanned the credit card a good thirty times before it read correctly.

The task of trying to make reservations took over Tuesday morning as well as we struggle to ensure the Italy-Austria leg of our trip. We weren’t able to do so, although I’d been told and seen in our booklet that these train don’t require reservations, so I resigned myself to hoping for the best.

Ad arrived without any trouble Monday night, and we had fun showing him the city. We walked up North to an area called Croix-Rousse, which had some pretty streets and great views. It was quite a hike, which was a good way to work off the lavender gelato I ate back at the bottom of the hill in Vieux Lyon.

One of my favorite times in Lyon was that evening, when we met a fellow student (there for the university program in Lyon) for dinner at a bouchon — the type of traditional eatery for which Lyon is famous. Lyon is in fact advertised as France’s gastronomical capital. While we’d been eating cheaply for the most part up till that point, I think we didn’t have a bad meal. There is butter on everything, which helps. And while I resorted to guess-and-point ordering, I was never disappointed, even when I had a baguette with just Brie, and of course, butter!

This dinner was a little different. While we begged off the aperitif, we did splurge for the menú du jour. Deciphering our options was a group effort, but I was happy with my two-cheese salad and salmon, and delighted by the apricot tart. However, in general I think I’ve had good meals in both Spain and France, and I remain unimpressed by France’s sole claim to fame.

Yet what really made the night was the outdoor seating and the pleasant company. Street musicians wandered by as we ate. It was a cool night, with a lovely breeze coming off of the water. If I could remember Lyon in any way, it would be that night.

Our final day felt a little extraneous after that, but we ran errands and paid a visit to the Museum of Fabric and the Decorative Arts. Lyon has been a traditional center for silk-weaving and the museum had an extensive collection of examples from around the world. The Decorative Arts museum was less impressive, but fit the mold of a preserved example of period living which now feels like a mandatory part of city visits.

As we leave France, I think I’ll look back on it as a pleasant experience, but not particularly enlightening. Like Spain, this was my first real time spent in the country. But unlike Spain, it did not strike me as radically different. There’s something about France that just seems predictable. Its medieval and Renaissance sights seem too perfectly constructed. Its culture and food seem overplayed. When everyone thinks of Europe, and perhaps when most people take a European language, it’s France they mean. So while I undertook this portion of the trip with the idea of changing my prejudice against France (inherited in some part) I fear that some portion of it remains intact.


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